I am gearing up for my next campaign and I am thinking of setting it in the Greyhawk described in From the Ashes. Now, I am no expert on Greyhawk and I am trying to wrap my head around the themes of Carl Sargent's Greyhawk that would be essential for me as a DM to capture.
A little background info about myself may be useful... I started AD&D 2nd Edition in the mid-late 90s (I was the eager, fresh-faced middle-grader in a group of high school seniors) and was therefore exposed only to Forgotten Realms as the default setting of AD&D. When 2nd Edition came to an end in 2001, I took one look at 3rd Edition and decided D&D was dead for me. It's pretty silly in retrospect, but nobody told me that I was allowed to keep playing the AD&D that I loved so I just moved on with my life. I rediscovered the old-school style of gameplay towards the end of college, in 2004 or so, with HackMaster, Castles & Crusades and the Basic Fantasy RPG.
Within a few years, however, the "OSR" (perhaps ironically) led me BACK to TSR to discover all the editions of the game that I never had a chance to enjoy... I left the OSR behind and bought (then still in shrink!) the Moldvay Basic and Cook/Marsh Expert sets for a measly $30 each, I got a 5th printing white box OD&D (that still had the Ents and Hobbits) and all the OD&D supplements, I got 1st Edition AD&D and the World of Greyhawk boxed set. I enjoyed playing all of them over the following years, but eventually my heartstrings tugged me back to my origins and AD&D 2e. When the dust settled, I realized that 2nd Edition is still the absolute perfect version of the game for me.
Since then, I've been gaming 2e like a madman for the last few years, playing in and running multiple campaigns, often simultaneously. I've bought almost every supplement for 2e that I'd ever want to own and just last year I finally got my hands on the elusive From the Ashes, the inimitable Carl Sargent's own treatment of the original Greyhawk setting.
I am now reading FTA and it is clicking a lot more than the World of Greyhawk boxed set did. WoG seemed to be too similar to Forgotten Realms for me to draw an essential distinction between them in my head. FTA, on the other hand, really seems to have its own unique feel. The world is gripped by the coiling shadows of the bygone war, the land is ruined and the heroes are dead. The fight is over and the good guys lost. The armistice, largely engineered by the prevailing forces of evil to strangle the remnant forces of good, has left the good nations crippled and compromised by the terms of the interim peace. The War is over. It was lost. Now is the fading of Good from the earth.
Now, that is cool. I can work with that... I can do a lot with that.
But I still don't know a lot about Carl Sargent's Greyhawk. What would you see as the essential elements of the post-Greyhawk War setting? I know there are many, many, many "versions" of Greyhawk (Supplement 1, folio, box set, Greyhawk Adventures, FTA, Roger Moore's TAB-Greyhawk etc.) I am only interested in Carl Sargent's take on the setting... I don't plan on going with any of the post-585 CY events (which largely resolve the lovely tension and danger that Sargent sets up). We will start with the "cold, harsh spring of 585 CY" and chart our own path from there (the world will stay dark, though... no return to normalcy for Greyhawk in my campaign!)
Also, I have honed in on my favorite playstyle of 2e as being "standard rules only" which means (among other things) only fighters, mages, thieves and clerics, PCs with "human scale" stats (3d6 in order) and high lethality (death at 0 hp). Could this work with the brutal setting that Sargent describes?
Great to meet you Galadrin. I enjoyed reading about your path to Greyhawk.
Your high lethality, human scale, standard rules only vision will work well with From the Ashes in the sense that your players would do well not to become attached to any particular character! ;)
If you have time to plan where you will start your campaign, I recommend that you read two FtA supplements, The Marklands and Ivid the Undying (never printed but available freely online), which further developed and specified Sargent's vision for Furyondy, Nyrond, and the former Great Kingdom of Aerdy.
I DMed Greyhawk campaigns prior to FtA, but Sargent's work inspired me to start a new campaign just before the start of the "Greyhawk Wars," where the PCs started around the City of Greyhawk and ventured to northern Furyondy just in time to try to survive the onrush of Iuz's armies. The Marklands provided a great amount (but not too much) detail for me to structure a multi-year campaign that ranged from northeast Furyondy through the former Horned Society and Shield Lands and down to Dyvers and the Kron Hills.
Another campaign idea that the The Marklands inspired was to campaign in Almor and have the PCs respond to the destruction of their homeland.
As I write this, I recall / think that Sargent drew on imagery from the Great War. The Marklands in particular features a number of situations redolent of trench warfare.
IMO Ivid the Undying is magisterial. Sargent provided great amounts of detail for the Great Kingdom, and regardless of whether you like all of it, what he spun and wove can be repurposed to suit your vision.
Also, I've written about in other forum posts over the years, Ivid the Undying sparked my interest in the Bone March. If you stick with Sargent, his treatment of Knurl provides an interesting base of operations for PCs who are willing to protect an almost forgotten city behind enemy lines. Alternatively, if you're interested in a rugged northern frontier area, you might set a campaign in Ratik.
I'll stop now. Consider "Touring the Flanaess" via the Feature at the left side of the webpage. Even though you're focused on FtA, its entries should give you a taste of different locales that might interest you.
As you post more about your ideas, I'll respond as often and quickly as I can.
That's great advice, thanks. I will definitely check out those other Sargent works. I didn't actually realize that the Ivid the Undying supplement existed... I'll have to try and track that down.
I hadn't made up my mind yet on locations so those are good insights. The Sheldomar Valley also looks like a good place for adventures post-War, with Geoff and Sterich being overrun.
And yep, PC death is definitely something that happens when you play standard rules only! The gameplay is actually very, very reminiscent of Basic D&D (B/X or BECMI), which also has 3d6 in order stats and death at 0 hp. There was a time after my OSR phase when I was playing a lot of Basic D&D (B/X) and I really appreciate that playstyle and understand why it is so popular among Basic D&D fans. I love that AD&D 2e can do that playstyle too (using just the standard rules).
I should note though that I typically give the players ready access to Raise Dead, even from 1st Level. The way I run things, there is typically a 9th Level Cleric within 9 days travel that will Raise dead PCs for a very nominal fee (the DMG actually implies that the spell will be cast for free on PCs of compatible faith with the temple). The way 2e handles Raise Dead really justifies making the spell accessible (through scrolls or NPCs) at low level, since you still have to pass your Resurrection Survival roll and you get a permanent ability score reduction if you survive.
As for the campaign, I am thinking of using the From the Ashes themes as heavy campaign trappings... society is frayed, communities become balkanized, the political order deteriorates amidst mistrust and desperation, the forces of evil subvert the institutions of society, corrupting them from within, while chaos gnaws at the tattered borderlands, swallowing whole communities that can no longer expect the protection of their distant, beleaguered rulers. I want the campaign to be steeped in this feeling. I do not expect, however, to use the actual major plot events directly in the campaign... for one, I am not yet convinced that I understand them well enough to be comfortable with having the canon plot play a central role in the campaign... players are notorious for throwing DM's a curveball and I want to have an expansive understanding of Greyhawk both pre and post War to best know how to react when the players veer off the carefully laid path of my storyline. Instead, I plan to run it like an open sandbox of sorts, with gameplay more akin to B2 Keep on the Borderland. Basically, there is a larger context that looms like thunderstorms on the horizon but the main focus of the campaign is on the immediate: that which the players themselves do as they crawl through dungeons and explore the local region (which is heavily inflected by the dominant mood of From the Ashes. Eventually, a Big Bad will emerge that will be an obvious rising threat. This will be a new threat (a demon or an ambitious Drow or a lich or something), but not one of the big figures named in the canon material... the idea is that lawful order is already teetering on the brink of total collapse in the dark shadows between the last and the next War of annihilation, and this new and unexpected danger threatens to plunge it all into darkness before the forces of good can rally themselves for the coming conflict.
I realize that this runs the risk of using From the Ashes as little more than campaign colour and window-dressing, but I think the mood of FTA might be an interesting lens through which we might explore the concepts of heroism, sacrifice, pyrrhic victory and defeat. It offers an alternative interpretation to, say, the typically whimsical adventurism of FR (where the focus of the players is simply self-empowerment).
I like your plan to develop "an open sandbox of sorts, with gameplay more akin to B2 Keep on the Borderland." Your ideas for the campaign to feature a new threat capable of pushing the detente over the brink of collapse into annihilation reminds me a lot of how The Marklands treated the Vesve Forest vis-à-vis Furyondy, Highfolk, and Iuz.
I look forward to you sharing in the future how your PCs "explore the concepts of heroism, sacrifice, pyrrhic victory and defeat."
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